Shut the Door, Have a Seat: Mad Men Season 3 Finale
Nothing ends without something else beginning. In perhaps the most action-packed show of the entire series, the Sterling Cooper agency we’ve known comes to an end in the Season 3 finale of Mad Men, “Shut the Door, Have a Seat,” and so does Betty and Don’s marriage, but in both cases the endings are followed by swift commencements of something new: The Sterling-Cooper-Draper-Pryce agency and the Betty-Henry Trainwreck. When God shuts a door, he opens a window, but these are mere mortals, and so they only manage to find a place to sit: Don and his new business partners on the overstuffed chairs of the Pierre hotel, Betty in a first class plane seat on her way to Reno for a quickie divorce.
The episode begins with Don waking up in the spare room that we’ve seen both Grandpa and baby Gene sleeping in, making Don a cross between a newborn and a dead man, which is exactly right for someone who in the course of a couple days ends one life and starts another. Learning from Connie Hilton that both Sterling-Cooper and its parent company PPL have been bought by McCann-Erickson, which Don sees as “a sausage factory,” he quickly decides he doesn’t want to be the “prize pig” that Connie assures him he’ll be there (after all, pigs get ground up into sausages). Don’s already been courted by McCann and turned them down (in Season 1), and his contract with SC has felt imprisoning enough – he’s not about to get lost in the crowd at a larger agency.
But when Don tries to lay some Oedipal accusations on Hilton, blaming him for the contract he finds himself stuck in and rightly accusing Hilton of being manipulative with all the “you’re like a son to me” talk, Connie returns the serve ferociously, posing a question that will recur throughout the episode, of what kind of man Don Draper is and what he really wants:
I got everything I have on my own. It’s made me immune to those who complain and cry because they can’t. I didn’t take you for one of them, Don. Are you?
From that Father Dearest moment with Hilton, Don flashes back to the Depression of his childhood, when Archie pulled out of a farmers' cooperative because the agreed-upon prices for crops fell too low, stubbornly refusing to sell until the bank’s about to take the farm – precipitating not just the loss of it, but (we presume) his own death in a drunken barn accident. Determined not to die a dog’s death like his father, and fired up by Hilton’s challenge, Don wakes up Bert and proposes that they buy the agency back only to become infuriated by Bert’s initial resignation and unwillingness to gamble his fortune:
Bert: Young men love risk because they can’t imagine consequences.
Don: And you old men love building golden tombs and sealing us in with you.
I think that exchange might be a paraphrase of a line from the movie Troy, “Old men talk and young men die," but in any case Don’s entreaty “I want to work. I want to build something. How can you not understand that?” seems to exert a powerful pseudo-parental guilt on Bert. The sleepy old lion bestirs himself and goes back on the hunt, helping Don convince Roger to join them, lest he end up one of those men who retire only to die a few years later because they’ve “lost their appetite.” (Translation: Be a man or lose your dick. Or is that your Don?)
Proving that mens’ relationships are far more simple or sensible or something of that sort, Don quickly makes peace with Roger by acknowledging that he can’t do what Roger does with clients:
Don: I was wrong. I can sell ideas but I’m not an account man.
Roger: You’re not good at relationships because you don’t value them.
Don: I value my relationship with you.
With the Three Musketeers back together, it’s on to figuring out how to save the agency. Lane Pryce at first throws cold water on their idea to outbid McCann, saying it’s only SC that’s being sold and it’s a done deal, only to have his own ice facial when he finds out that PPL is indeed being sold and he’ll be just another brick in the wall at the new firm. Having been liberated from merry old England by this news, he’s free to join the colonist revolutionaries in their plans to overthrow the king. (Thus far proving right my prediction last week of how this plot would go….)
But as usual the person who makes it all work is Don, having one of his trademark flashes of creative genius on how to dream the impossible dream and undertake the illegal mutiny without getting sued. He suggests that Lane fire the three partners, thus freeing them from their contracts and enabling them to start a new agency right away. Lane puts up about as much resistance to this idea as a drunk co-ed at a frat party before devising a way to make it work: He’ll Telex the jolly old home office that afternoon and given the time difference, they won’t get the news till Monday morning, by which time the pirates of Sterling Cooper will have made off with the booty of as many accounts as they can. And people think modern technology makes their lives better. Just try pulling this coup off in the age of email, faxes and texts!
As the principals go about assembling their Impossible Mission Force, it’s gratifying to see that they pick our favorite characters to take along with them: Peggy, Pete, Harry and, in Roger’s one moment of inspiration, Joan. For of course Joan is the one person who actually knows where the files (and probably the bodies) are buried, as well as being absolutely crackerjack at organizing their new venture from top to bottom. Pete’s in for a slice of partnership and possibly a title with no adjectives in it, Harry’s in to become Head of Media, and Peggy’s in it just for the chance to say “No” when Roger asks her to get him some coffee. They soon set about liberating as much material from the office over the weekend as they can, while purloining the clients needed to get up and running. (Sadly, the keystone account status of Lucky Strikes means Sal’s not going to be invited back any time soon, but perhaps next season Lee Junior will run off to Hollywood and abandon the tebacky business so we can get our Sal back.)
There’s not going to be a lobby. ~ Don
As one new partnership comes together, another comes apart. With his marriage to Roger back on, Don comes home only to find out his other one is off, when Betty tells him she’s lawyered up and he should, too. His reaction illustrates one big reason Betty wants out:
Don: You haven’t been yourself. Maybe you need to see a doctor -- a good one this time.
Betty: Because I’d have to be sick to want out of this?
It’s hard to reconcile the Don who is so intuitive about what consumers and clients want with the man who’s so utterly hopeless at his personal relationships. He knows how to lie and manipulate, and even how to be honest when he really really has to be, but he doesn’t know how to hear honesty about himself. He has to deflect it and make it entirely about the other person. And yet in this episode he makes progress, helped along by the other main woman in his life, Peggy. Throughout this episode, Don’s relationships with her and Betty are juxtaposed and played off each other, as the two main women in his life stand up to him in ways they never have, in one case to dissolve a partnership, and in the other, to form one, of equals.
We’re not surprised that the first person Don wants in his new agency is Peggy, but he’s initially as clueless and insensitive with her as he is with Betty, expecting her to simply follow him, prompting a long overdue speech from Peggy:
Peggy: You just assume I’ll do whatever you say, just follow you like some nervous poodle.
Don: I’m not going to beg you.
Peggy: Beg me? You didn’t even ask me. […] I’ve had other offers, you know. They came with a sales pitch about opportunity. Everyone thinks you do all my work, even you. I don’t want to make a career out of being there so you can kick me when you fail.
It’s only after he learns from Roger (in a drunken slip of the lip) that Betty is involved with Henry that Don comes to appreciate Peggy, enacting a seeming split of good girl/bad woman (reminiscent of the Jackie vs. Marilyn bra campaign) with Betty’s demotion resulting in Peggy’s literal promotion. Shocked to learn that his sanctimonious wife has been stepping out on him, Don confronts Betty with an inversion of his usual admonition that she go to sleep – demanding that she “wake up” and tell him who Henry Francis is. Betty too switches roles, answering with the Don Draperesque lie, “No one.” But having taught her that game, Don isn’t fooled, and wants her to recognize that she’s as flawed and venal as he is, keeping her own secrets while hiding behind a self-righteous façade:
Because you’re good and everyone else in the world is bad. You’re so hurt, you’re so brave with your little white nose in the air. All along you’ve been building a life raft.
Don of course has had his own life raft built, stocked and pointed towards Tahiti more than once on this series, but beyond simply being hypocritical, it’s his ego that can’t bear the blow. What is really infuriating is that Betty has found him wanting as a man, causing him to snarl, “You got everything you ever wanted and now I’m not good enough for some spoiled Mainline brat” -- an accusation Betty lets soak in like poison by retorting, “That’s right.” And when he threatens to cut her off financially and take the kids because they’d be better off with him, Betty has her own weapon ready and loaded: “Don’t threaten me. I know all about you.” Don’s only response to this is to call Betty a whore, which come to think of it…is what his mother was. So I guess Betty has that Madonna/Whore thing covered from both ends.
After the late night drama, it seems for a moment that Don has come to terms with the divorce when he and Betty sit down to have that agonizing ritual of modern life, Telling the Children About the Divorce. But even as Betty shakes her head in contradiction and frustration, he fudges and says it’s only temporary, and it’s up to another little woman, Sally Draper, to set him straight:
Don: I’m not going. I’m just living elsewhere.
Sally: That’s going. You say things and you don’t mean them and you can’t just do that. You said you’d always come home.
Don: I will. It’s just a different home.
Is it just me, or is Sally showing both her father’s gift with words and her mother’s gimlet-eyed observation of Don’s behavior? In any case, while he comforts Bobby lovingly, Don seems chastened by Sally’s words, although the woman who benefits from that change of heart is Peggy, on whose doorstep he appears both to apologize and to lure to his new company, acknowledging that he’s seen her an extension of himself when she’s not. But after this budding attempt at seeing women as autonomous creatures, Don slips back into merging himself with Peggy, casting them as twin souls who see the world differently because of their secrets and pain:
There are people out there who buy things. People like you and me and something happened. Something terrible. And the way that they saw themselves is gone. And nobody understands that. But you do and that’s very valuable.
In a strange shadow of a proposal, far more romantic and satisfying than the overtures she’s been getting from that hickey-biter Duck, Don all but goes down on one knee to woo her, allaying her fears that he’ll never speak to her again if she says No by assuring her that he’ll never stop trying to win her over. We don’t need to hear Peggy’s answer to know that this is one offer she can’t refuse.
We got nothing and we’re about to have less. ~ Don’s stepmother
Throughout the episode, we’re faced with the idea of family: What is it? The one you are born with? The one you grow up with? Or the ones you make, both in your home and at work?
Family is what Don has always been running from: the sordid circumstances of his birth, the poverty and abuse in his upbringing, the stealing of another man’s family name. Family is what he’s avoided, having formed the façade of one with Betty but failing to commit himself fully to it, and signing a contract at work but only under duress and due to the lure of a man who called him“Son” and then betrayed him, as his own father did.
The loss of fathers weighs heavily on Don in this episode, and yet we know from what he’s told Betty that his life actually got better after Archie died, because his stepmother remarried a man who was good to Don. But we feel that Don’s children would be worse off without him, and not just because they sadly plead for him not to leave (as all children do when told their parents are divorcing) but because we’re suspicious of the man who wants to be their stepfather – a man who doesn’t want Betty to take any money from Don but instead to rely entirely on him for both her own and her children’s welfare.
Apparently unversed in Freud despite her time on the shrink’s couch, and relying instead on her fantasy time on the fainting couch, Betty fails to see that she’s about to marry her father, and is trading a man who won’t be controlled by her for a man who wants to control her. But that’s what you get when you divorce a man who's a mystery for one who’s an enigma. In her haste to leave Don, Betty seems unconcerned about the fact that she knows even less about Henry than she did about Don before marrying him. As she jets towards Reno, we can only reflect that married she still may be, but divorced from reality she has always been.
Don ends the episode heading alone towards a hotel with suitcases in hand – a lonely image that would seem worthy of Edward Hopper, except for what came before it, which is the formation of a new family. Having phoned Betty and given her his promise that he’ll give her no problem with the divorce, and telling her he hopes that she gets what she’s always wanted (ah, if only she knew what that was!), Don returns to see everyone working cheerfully together, excited by the adventure of starting a new company.
The proud paterfamilias stands in the corner, looking a bit stunned at the family he’s created out of seeming disaster, and happy to be in their midst. We’ve seen him in hotel rooms many times before – in solitude, in meetings and in flagrante delicto – but this is the first time we’ve seen him look at home, even if it's the "different home" that he told Sally he was going to. While the episode started with his father breaking up a cooperative, Don has instead formed one, in both senses of that word, and in doing so, may have finally found a group that he can actually see himself in. Earlier, as they’d left the pillaged SC offices, Roger and Don had paused for one last look:
Roger: How long do you think it will take us to be in a place like this again?
Don: I never saw myself working in a place like this.
We know (even if Roger doesn’t) that Don’s remark has two meanings – both that he ‘s succeeded beyond his wildest dreams, but also that the stuffy corporate life isn’t what he’d wanted – or wants. All along, he’s felt trapped in the gleaming modern offices of SC, just he’s felt trapped in his comfortable suburban married life. He ends the season liberated, facing an unknown future in which anything can happen – and we viewers also have no idea where these characters may end up. In telling the kids about the divorce, Don hedges with “It’ll just be temporary,” while Betty sounds decisive, “It’ll be different.” And yet it seems that they are both wrong. Betty’s headed for a temporary change of man and marriage that will end up much the same, and it’s Don who seems headed for something truly different, even if it's with the same familiar people.